- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A stylish female warrior helps souls escape doomsday in the third-person adventure Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix, reviewed for the Xbox 360, Rated: Teen, $59.99).

Taking place 500 hundred years after the events of Final Fantasy XIII-2, we find our heroine Lightning awakening after her extended hibernation on the planet of Nova Chrysalia, near at its end, and consumed by the evil force of Chaos.

After cutting a deal with the god Bhunivelze to resurrect her sister Serah, she has 13 days to guide souls to a new world to be created by the deity. Yes, a sort of Book of Revelations mash-up here but loaded with exhausting combat, a soap-operatic plot, plenty of chatting and exploring and some massive swordplay.

Her journey’s will teleport her from a sky headquarters named the Arc to such active areas as the divine city of light, Luxerion; the lifeless desert with undead horrors called the Dead Dunes; the lush and dangerous wilderness of Wildlands; and a Las Vegas for end-of-world partiers called Yusnaan.

In each, she must accept missions and side quests, talk to the area natives and fight for her life against a variety of humans and creatures while claiming those precious souls.

For example, early on she is on a fact-gathering mission to find out who killed a group of girls that look like her. Lightning’s investigation eventually leads to confrontations with a group of religious zealots called the Children of Etro.

Or, while in the Wildlands, she must find an illusive white chocobo (a large chicken-like creature) nicknamed the Angel of Valhalla. Once she gets clues from a local doctor of its location, she must fight a huge monster to rescue it. If the animal appreciates her efforts, she can actually ride it around the location.

Lightning’s most-precious objective, saving those souls, is very important for the player as he quickly realizes he has a big problem.

The world ends in 13 days, but I’m only seeing that I have seven days of game time. Well, that’s a sneaky time limit. The opportunistic player who can free complete missions and side quests will earn Eradia, a light force that accumulates and that translates into extra time to play the game and save more humans.

I really hated that aspect of the game. There is always too much to do and see and not enough hours. In fact, in three hours of real time, I have almost burned through three days due to my meandering and incompetence. I was not getting much Eradia to help.

Combat can be equally frustrating but rewarding for successes. It not only relies on unleashing sequences of magical and physical attacks (tied to a controller’s buttons) at the right time but entering battle with the proper sets of Schemata.

Stop scratching your head. The term refers to building a custom set of powers based on stuff acquired. A player chooses garb, a weapon, shield, accessories and abilities to design a load out to use on enemies.

The garb is always quite stylish and occasionally risqué (reference Lightning dressed in mini-skirts, flowing dresses highlighting her cleavage and practically only her skivvies), but each Schemata package can be accessed on the fly to mix together a potent selection of costuming that triggers combinations of attacks.

Luckily, each location also offers plenty of shops to buy stuff based on the game’s currency Gil, so a player can keep building a variety of Schemata.

Now engaging a creature (running away is acceptable) is often a painful struggle of will. It can take an extended amount of effort and time to defeat one. I was awed by the impressive detail of monsters such as the Kaiser Behemoth (a quadrupedal beast that when wounded becomes bipedal and pulls out a sword) but really frustrated when trying to beat it.

Overall, the game is not quite a complete immersion into the role-playing genre but offers plenty of resource management and discovery. It’s enough to change up the pace of the sometimes-endless combat.

What always stands out is the insane plot minutia as well as the impressive, lifelike animated scenes familiar to the Final Fantasy franchise.

I’ll describe the latest effort as a plunge into a complex Frank Herbert novel, loaded with its own vocabulary and heavy-handed mysticism, and starring characters bound to a fashion sense appreciated by Andy Warhol and Puffy Ami Yumi.

Further immersing the player in to the Final Fantasy universe is an in-game encyclopedic resource filled with background on the characters, history and lore of the lands with even a bestiary to identify creepy crawler behemoths through 360-degree views.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is a time-consuming, often-draining escape into an incredible universe meticulously crafted by director Motomu Toriyama and his team. It’s a fitting end to the series and filled with surprises, wonderful characters and battles.

However, don’t spend too much time appreciating it. Remember, those minutes talking to the locals or checking out some cool ruins can have apocalyptic implications.

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